Sam Vaknin, a self-described narcissist, posts his prolific and insightful articles about narcissism on the internet. One recently caught my eye as it shed an interesting light on a couples counseling case I have been treating. The article explores similarities and differences between narcissism and Aspergers, a syndrome which now is being labeled as an autistic spectrum disorder.
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Vaknin views narcissists, including himself, as able to interact with high levels of social skills in situations where impressing someone they look up to is important to them. As he says: narcissists appear sociable and socially even highly capable when they are interacting with someone whom they regard as having potential to fulfill their desire for admiration, power and other “narcissistic supplies.” At the same time, he points out, once a narcissistic person has begun to devalue the other, self-absorption and deficits in ability to experience empathy emerge. These features bear striking resemblance to the features of someone with Aspergers.
Similarly, Dr. Khalid A. Mansour (the British Arab psychiatrist, not the Black Nationalist friend of President Obama who has ties to a weathy Saudi prince) has proposed in an article in the Pan Arab Journal of Psychiatry that narcissistic personality may merit classification as an autistic spectrum disorder.
Dr. Mansour writes, “There is now significant level of agreement that emotional processing problems like: lack of empathy, poor self-awareness, self-centredness, poor reciprocation of emotion, poor ability to maintain emotional relationships, anxiety and anger outbursts are more or less central features of autism (10, 50,51)."
Interesting. When I first read the above paragraph, I though Dr. Mansour was writing about severe narcissism. His description fits both narcissism and autistic spectrum disorders. Hmmm.
Dr. Mansour similarly quotes from the ICM-10 listing these features of autism
- Self-centeredness; inappropriate to developmental level and cultural expectations
- Poor self-awareness, poor ability to develop remorse or learn from mistakes
- Poor empathy or appreciation of others feelings
- Poor ability to reciprocate emotions.
- Hostile dependency on safe relations.
- Failure to develop emotional relationships appropriate to developmental level and social norms
- Treating people as objects or preferring objects over them
Again, this list certainly sounds a lot like narcissism.
Dr. Monsour concludes: “… it is noticeable that people with NPD, do not show a major degree of functioning problems in stress free environment or when they are supported (except that they are perceived as “not pleasant characters” to deal with). However under stress and without support they can become quite dysfunctional in a way not far from what we usually see in Asperger’s syndrome. “
Theory of Mind: Another autism spectrum and narcissism similarity?
Another perspective that suggests similarities between narcissism and autistic spectrum disorders involves Theory of Mind. The website Autism-World describes this phenomenon nicely:
"One of the key traits in people with autism is that they lack what is known in psychology as a ‘theory of mind’, which is also known as ‘mindblindness’. Theory of mind (T.O.M) means the ability to understand that other people have a mind and thoughts that differ from our own. This means that people with autism will often only be able to see things from their own point of view, they cannot imagine how something may affect someone else; which may be why you see them as self-centered."
Sounds a lot like narcissism!
People who are narcissistic experience difficulties when differences arise between themselves and others because of this deficit in "theory of mind." It is hard for them to believe that there is another side to the issue that troubles them because they believe that their view is the only view, that they are always "right," and that listening to the other's feelings either makes them at fault or may block their abililty to get what they want. As I explain in my book From Conflict Resolution, to proceed collaboratively both parties need to be able to voice their concerns and both need to be able to hear and take seriously the other's perspective.
If autism spectrum disorders are genetic…
In my clinical practice I have been struck by the frequency with which neither parent of an autistic spectrum child presents with an autistic spectrum disorder, and yet one parent does appear to be significantly narcissistic with difficulties empathizing with others and digesting others’ perspectives.
Narcissism as the next-to-the-last stop on the train to the autistic spectrum disorders.
Many spouses in my couples therapy practice express relief when they hear my speculation that narcissism may be a milder version of what with increased severity would become Aspergers--and with even more self-absorption and difficulty taking in others’ perspectives would be labeled autism.
If narcissistic personality disorder tendencies stem from neuro-biological deficits and/or brain anomalies that cause difficulties with empathy, then it becomes easier to empathize with rather than become angry at an emotionally-deaf loved one.
I look forward to reading what neuroscience research finds in the way of biological clues as to why narcissism and Apspergers seem linked.
Meanwhile if you know of research suggesting why the line that departs out from normal social and emotional intelligences toward autistic self-isolation, please share links to these studies by writing in the Comments section below.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD has an interactive web-based marriage skills program at PowerOfTwoMarriage.com. The program is based on her books teaching the secrets to successful collaborative relationships and marriage: The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook.